The best way to sum up how bad things were for Jesse Lingard was that he had become everything he is not. The fun-loving, extrovert Nottingham Forest midfielder did not want to leave the house. The boy who has always embraced the ball and the game with everything he has did not want to be on the pitch. He was even drinking. Anything to escape the bleakness of his reality.
“I was on autopilot,” Lingard says. “I was having conversations with people and I was just like: ‘Yeah. OK. Yeah.’ Nothing would register. It would go in one ear and out the other. I was numb and I wanted to be in that numb state where I didn’t have to feel anything.”
This is what depression looks like, the insidious condition that has tormented Lingard’s mum, Kirsty, for longer than either of them want to dwell on. Lingard says she has been “depressed from when I was born”, often medicated and in bed; exhausted, overwhelmed, the curtains pulled shut. And it is what took hold of him in 2019 when he was a Manchester United player, gripping with increasing ferocity in the months leading up to the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020.
Lingard says that rock bottom came in an FA Cup tie at Derby at the beginning of that month. He had played the 90 minutes and United won 3-0, but he was not really there. He had not been for some time. As he boarded the team bus afterwards, a couple of United fans hurled sustained and deeply unpleasant abuse at him.
They did not know what was going on in Lingard’s life. When his mum was admitted to a facility in London in 2019 for treatment, Lingard’s younger brother, Jasper, and younger sister, Daisy, came to live with him. He had them there for “longer than six months”, looking after them, making sure that they got to school and all the rest. As he worried about his mum and felt his siblings missing her, his well-being crashed.
It is unlikely that the abusive supporters would have cared. To them Lingard was a highly paid footballer, living the dream at his boyhood club, and so he had to perform. Full stop. But Lingard wants to open up on his turmoil, perhaps to explain what was a lost period for him at United and, more importantly, to raise awareness and understanding of the issues around poor mental health. It is why he has collaborated on a documentary with Channel 4 – Untold: The Jesse Lingard Story, which airs on Tuesday.
“I just felt so much scrutiny, especially after the Derby game and I was getting abuse as I got on the bus,” Lingard says. “I can normally take it but sometimes it gets to a point where it’s like: ‘Ahh, I can’t even be arsed doing this any more.’
“Nobody really knew about my struggles off the pitch so they think: ‘You’re a footballer, you live in a nice house, you’ve got money, you can deal with anything.’ But when it’s someone’s health and well being – it’s a different situation. We’re all human.
“It was difficult around that moment in time. It was probably [for] months. I didn’t want to play in case I did badly and there was more scrutiny. Football is my happy place but at that time, I couldn’t really put myself in that situation. I was playing and I felt like I was nonexistent. The games were just passing me by. When it’s not working out on the pitch, you try to work that bit harder to do well in the next match but my mind wasn’t there to do that. I wanted to stop completely and have a break and just be at home. I didn’t want to be on the pitch and have all that scrutiny. You lose a ball and it’s more pressure.”
Lingard paints a vivid picture of the loneliness he felt on the field, one man in front of thousands, the collective stare laser-like and utterly unforgiving. He holds his hands out and brings them slowly towards his head. “You feel like everything is closing in on you,” he says. “All the weight is on your shoulders. You feel closed up. You don’t want the ball, you are hiding away from the ball. That’s never been me.”
There is a scene in the documentary where Lingard is videoed by his elder brother, Louie, lying on the sofa, completely still, eyes blank. He was like that for a few minutes, apparently, and it did not sound like an isolated moment.
“Just autopilot,” Lingard says. “Coming home, lying on the sofa and staring. When I look at that now, I don’t know what was in my mind but it must have been racing. Literally, I just wanted to sit at home and drink a little bit – try and take the pain away. I don’t do that, normally. I’m not really a big drinker. Of course, here and there on nights out, whatever. But sitting at home and drinking before bed … that’s when I knew I was in a bad situation.
“It wasn’t drinking to excess. It was just little bits through the week and stuff like that. I look back and think: ‘What was I doing?’ It was probably just to be in a mind frame where I’ve got no pain, no cares. Because I didn’t have anyone to bounce off or feed off, I resorted to that.”
Lingard did confide in the United doctor and also Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the team’s manager at the time. They were sympathetic and it helped. But what he really needed was to get away from the game. He makes the point that he never wanted to quit for good, just have a break for a month, two months or “whatever it would have been”. So lockdown, perversely, had an upside for him.
Lingard took delivery from Louie of a stack of old videos of him doing well for United at youth level and England at the 2018 World Cup, when he was a fixture in Gareth Southgate’s starting XI on the run to the semi-final – probably the highlight of his career. They reminded him of why he had got to the top in the first place and he was able to reset.
“If lockdown didn’t happen, I don’t know what situation I’d be in because I needed that rest to really look at myself again, to reignite that fire in my belly and work out what was wrong with me,” Lingard says. “It was a turning point. I watched those videos and thought: ‘I should never doubt myself.’ I started training every day, going for runs and making sure that I was one of the fittest going back to United after lockdown.”
The knocks continued to come but now he was able to deal with them. Lingard barely played for United in the first half of the following season but when he got a loan to West Ham in January 2021, he caught fire, scoring nine Premier League goals for them, although it was not enough to earn a place in the England squad for the European Championship. He was also able to stay strong last season when he started only three games for United and the club blocked a January loan to Newcastle.
If Lingard describes his Euro omission as a “down moment; I expected to go with the form I was in”, he knew in his heart of hearts that he would not get the call for the World Cup in Qatar. He has simply not started well enough at Forest after his free transfer from United in July, only scoring his first goal and registering his first assist in last Wednesday’s Carabao Cup win over Tottenham. Lingard, though, is back to being himself and he can also be proud of the courage that his mum showed to talk so candidly in the documentary.
“I guarantee that many, many people will be going through depression, especially in football, which is such a mentally draining sport,” Lingard says. “For me, it was about opening up and speaking about it. You’re never going to be judged because you’re a man and you’re talking about mental health and your feelings. You’re not soft for it.”
Untold: The Jesse Lingard Story airs Tuesday 15 November on All 4
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk